Cheesecake wiz


POSTED: Wednesday, August 12, 2009

For goodness' sake, how many things can one human being be good at? You'd think membership in a popular band would be enough. Or being a respected visual artist. Or basking in the spotlight as the star in a stage musical. But all of them?

And then there's the cheesecake.

“;It all started with the cake,”; says baker/bassist/artist/singer-actor Otto, who opened Otto Cake in Chinatown last month to much anticipation from cheesecake lovers islewide.

While Otto Cake the storefront is new, Otto Cake the cheesecake has achieved legendary status over two decades in Hawaii, having made regular appearances in coffee shops and cafes all over town and annually at the Big Mele concerts of the late 1990s.

Since he began, Otto has developed some 100 flavors of cheesecake. A few: rocky road, chocolate peanut butter, mixed berry, amaretto, banana coconut cream, chocolate marble, orange chocolate chip, honey, maple, lemon, key lime, mocha, pineapple/mac nut/coconut cream to commemorate statehood, and the unlikely carrot cheesecake.

“;Everything is based on the Amazing Plain,”; says Otto. “;I'm inspired by all kinds of things. I made the carrot one because I like carrot cake. The lemonade flavor ... was inspired by the Flamingo Lemonade at the zoo. Banana Coconut Cream was inspired by 'Gilligan's Island.' It sounds like something Mary Ann would always make.”;

Six weeks after opening up shop, Otto says he's overwhelmed by the response he's drawn.

“;I was hoping to sell one or two cakes a day,”; he said, in explaining why he's run out of cake pans and baking ingredients on more than one occasion.

On average, Otto Cake goes through six cakes by the slice and seven sold whole. The bakery also sells iced and hot coffee.





        » Location: 1160 Smith St. (between Beretania and Pauahi streets)

» Hours: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays


» Prices: $15 for 6-inch cake; $25, 8-inch; $30, 10-inch; slices, $5


» Call: 834-6886 (special orders require three-day notice)


“;It's scary that during a depression I can do this well. I read on the Internet that candies are also doing well. I guess it's about instant gratification,”; he says. “;I've been lucky.”;

At a dinner party in Hawaii Kai recently, a dozen or so cheesecake connoisseurs swooned over Otto's creation, agreeing that part of the magic was in its lightness.

“;Sometimes cheesecake is so thick it's inedible. This was lighter,”; said Bill Gentner.

Jeff White agreed. “;I'm impressed by the texture. I love the way it dissolves on the tongue and leaves an afterglow that's just a hint of flavor.”;

For Ramona Benz, the cake was simply “;amazing. I would certainly go out for this again.”;

All Otto will say about his recipe is that he includes the usual cheesecake ingredients: cream cheese, sugar and eggs—“;plus other secret ingredients.”;

“;Cheesecake is the simplest thing to make, even more so than chocolate chip cookies,”; he says. “;It's different from normal cake. That involves chemistry. Cheesecake is more flexible, like baking a quiche.”;

OTTO'S DATE with cheesecake destiny took place in late 1989, when he decided to give his mother a birthday present she'd never forget: a homemade cheesecake.

It seems Mom is such a fan of the cake that she was flying them in from Denver. “;It was her one decadence,”; he says. After the Denver bakery closed up shop, Otto decided to make one for her himself.

It was December when he hit the bookstore and spent a whole day looking up recipes from stacks of cookbooks. The research was mind-boggling at first.

“;One recipe said to turn off the oven and close the kitchen door for an hour,”; he recalls, still incredulous. “;I just wanted a basic cheesecake recipe.”;

He plowed through, making notes of ingredients, oven temperatures and cooking times.

Then he went home and hit the kitchen. He had until the end of January to meet the birthday deadline and experimented daily. “;I must've made 20 or 30 cakes,”; he says.

Though he didn't make his deadline, on Mother's Day 1990, Otto presented his mom with the inaugural Otto Cake.

“;Actually, it was Jan. 27, 1990, when the real one came out, so I could have made her birthday. But I didn't know it at the time and kept on trying new recipes.”;

THE INVESTMENT of time and care paid off in many ways in Otto's multifaceted life. His earliest artwork was part of an art and food show that featured his cheesecake. And it was through delivering his cakes around Oahu that he met musicians looking for a bass player and became a member of 86 List, now a fixture on the club circuit. From there it was a short jump to the stage to play Hedwig in local productions of “;Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”; His 2002 and 2007 performances are still raved about among the theater crowd.

Before cheesecake entered his life, Otto enjoyed success as a nationally titled pairs ice skater representing Hawaii, from ages 16 to 27. At the time, with no ice skating rink in Hawaii, he practiced on cement, in roller skates.

“;Most skaters retire at 18. I lasted way longer, so I had three partners,”; he recalls. “;The girls have to be small in order for their partners to fly them into the air, so they need to be young. That's why I had so many partners.”;

In addition to baking, Otto continues his weekly day job dressing windows for Gucci, Fendi, Christian Dior and Chanel.

His secret to success?

“;You have to want to keep learning,”; he says. “;I will try anything. I'm happy doing almost anything, and I really believe in what I do. And it may look like it's simple, like my art looks simple, but a lot of thought goes into my art, or a flavor of cheesecake. So I work hard—definitely.

“;I've accomplished a lot more than I ever thought, but it's not only about the doing. It's about being accepted, too. I'm so lucky that I've been accepted.”;